INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Age APRIL 25, 2009 - by Jane Wheatley
Brian Eno has helped some of the world's biggest bands produce their unique sound, and now he's coming to Australia to curate an ambitious new arts festival. Jane Wheatley meets a music genius and visionary.
An encounter with Brian Eno comes freighted with his formidable reputation: he is the professor of pop, politically opinionated, the polymath father of invention, always ahead of the curve. He has acolytes who genuflect at the mention of his name, who know intimately his entire oeuvre - his own records, the ones he collaborated on, the ones he produced, those on which a tutored ear can detect the Eno influence. They could probably do a PhD thesis on the Eno legend.
Then there are the rest of us: somehow we know that he is a genius - or anyway that the word genius seems to come attached to his name. We remember he played with Roxy Music and David Bowie back in the day, and are fairly certain he started the whole ambient music thing: that plangent, layered, uterine sound that makes pictures in your mind, or comes packaged with them on YouTube - butterflies, rainforests, melting icebergs, that sort of thing. "The elevator music of late capitalism," one reviewer called it sourly.
We probably hear him more often than we realise - on our iPhones, computer games and the start-up sound on Microsoft's Windows 95; on film scores and in art galleries. His is the invisible hand on the computer keyboard, blending, sampling, synthesising like a divine puppeteer. He is a collaborator - with Robert Fripp, John Cale, David Byrne - and a producer for some of the biggest bands in the world - Talking Heads, U2, Coldplay - although that's a limited word to describe his role as therapist, disciplinarian, deconstructor. "I start with the premise that everything is up for grabs," he says.
It is the approach he seems to be taking to his latest and most ambitious project: curating Luminous, a three-week festival of art and music at Sydney's Bennelong Point in May and June, involving rock, classical and world-music concerts, lectures, "conversations" and a continuous light show playing over the sails of the Opera House. When I sit in on the workshopping of the eight-hour grand finale, it is apparently still in the early planning stages. "We could divide the eight hours into matrices," muses Eno. "Half an hour of furry language, then figurative..." He and his collaborator, performance poet Karl Hyde, will be performing together while musicians and audiences come and go. "I could make you a cup of tea," says Hyde, who will be "camping" with a tent on stage during the performance. "Or I could cook a meal," says Eno. "Cooking and gardening are rich sources of metaphor."
This all sounds like good improvisational fun but alarmingly seat-of-the-pants with the festival launch less than two months away. "I like situations where you don't know what you're doing," Eno tells me later. "It makes you think harder." And he always brings his projects in on time: "To not meet a deadline for me is a sort of internal failure," he said once - which should come as a relief to the festival's organisers.
We meet at his Notting Hill studio in London, just around the corner from Portobello Road in a pretty cobbled mews. Eno is on the phone and I am ushered in by his old friend Gareth, today acting as publicist. We chat in whispers. "The thing about Brian," confides Gareth, "is that he talks about things in such a way that if I were to say exactly the same thing, it would sound like I had gone up my own arse. But with Brian, it makes perfectly reasonable sense."
Eno finishes his phone call and suggests an early lunch: "I could do with a break from talking." He wanders over to a bank of computers and music starts rippling around the whitewashed walls. "He does that," says Gareth, unwrapping Mark & Spencer salads. "Just starts laying down tracks."
Apparently, he doesn't even need to be here to do it but can compose in a train carriage, or on top of a bus, or on a park bench: "I have a recording studio in my laptop," he told an interviewer, "and a microphone for capturing sounds around me. I can construct instruments and play them on the train, which always gives fellow passengers cause for alarm."
While Eno crouches over his keyboards, I study a framed photograph of three girls lined up at the edge of a swimming pool. "My daughters," he nods, "from left to right - seventeen, nineteen and forty-one." He registers my astonishment - the girls could all be of a similar age. "She always looked young," he says of the eldest, Hannah, born shortly after the seventeen-year-old Eno married his pregnant girlfriend, Sarah Grenville. The younger two girls, Irial and Darla, are his daughters with his second wife, Anthea, whom he married in 1988.
At sixty, he is quite bald now - gone is the wispy blond hair; the hollows and planes of the once pale, poetic face have fleshed out in late middle age; a gold tooth winks in the light from the computer screen. he is dressed in dapper black, a far cry from the glam-rock years when, tricked out in leopard skin and red silk kimonos, he gave full rein to a prodigious appetite for sex and pornography - breast bondage and ladies' bottoms were particular interests.
Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno is the son of an English postman and a Belgian Catholic girl. They met when he was billeted with her family at the end of World War II: she returned from a German labour camp weighing thirty-two kilograms with a one-year-old daughter in tow, they fell in love and he brought her home to Suffolk in the east of England. Brian was born in 1948, followed eleven years later by his brother, Roger, now also a musician.
The young Brian failed to distinguish himself at school but flourished at art college, encouraged by an eccentric and much-loved uncle who used to slip him artists' monographs as a child. Then, within two years of Hannah's birth, he had embarked on what would become a forty-year career as a musical eclectic. According to Eno mythology, it was a chance meeting in London on an underground platform with Roxy Music's saxophonist, Andy Mackay, that changed his life: "If I'd walked ten yards further down the platform, I probably would have been an art teacher."
Dressed as "a vampy transsexual jester in black ostrich plumes and heavy purple eyeshadow," Eno spent two years playing keyboards and operating the mixing desk with Roxy Music before falling out with singer Bryan Ferry and moving on to make solo pop albums, including the stand-out Before And After Science. Then came the affair with ambient music, produced from his Brooklyn studio; the collaborations with Fripp, Cale and Byrne; and his unique take on the role of producer. In the '90s, he moved into generative music: several tracks blended, stopping and starting at different points, resulting in almost infinite variations of a single piece.
He then applied the same technique to visual-art installations. Constellations, to be shown in Sydney, offers seventy-seven million permutations of three hundred and sixty hand-painted slides: "The maths is sound," Eno assures people. He wanted his installations to be places to spend time in. "Like going for a walk in the forest," he told The Times, "where you make decisions about which way to go, where you can stop and not feel like you missed anything."
Lunch is finished, the sun is shining outside and we agree to take a walk. Eno slips on a soft, unstructured, slubby grey-flecked jacket: possibly cashmere. When we reach the main road, he does a little skip around behind me: "Sorry, just trying to get the right side of you," he says. In a move of old-fashioned chivalry, he is now walking on the outside of the pavement.
He has complained in the past that his artwork receives less attention in the UK than in, say, Japan or America: is he the proverbial prophet without honour? "The Brits distrust people with two jobs," he says. "A pop musician doesn't deserve a place in a proper gallery; they think you must be a dilettante."
He is writing a book on the role of culture - that's three jobs, then - and is a founding member of the Long Now Foundation (billed as a futurist think tank, though he says it is more of a "gentlemen's club") and Client Earth, a group of mainly lawyers drafting legislation to protect the environment. he has been hired by the UK's Liberal Democrat Party to advise on new ways of engaging with the electorate, is a regular commentator for press and TV, and is an eloquent dissenter about all sorts of things from the Israeli invasion of Gaza to funding cuts to the BBC World Service.
What does he do to relax? "I sing gospel with my a capella group each week: our role is never perform, never record, it's strictly for our own pleasure. I plant things and sit in the vegetable garden watching my hens scratch about." The family home is a farmhouse on twelve hectares of Oxfordshire countryside, which he is reforesting, Thoreau-style: "It was agricultural land - a desert, really," he says. "Four thousand five hundred trees are going in this year and will eventually surround the house: it's a way of offsetting all the flying I'll be doing for this Sydney thing."
He has said more that once that he might give up his art: "I think about it all the time: is this the right thing to be doing?" What would he do instead? "Well, the world would be my oyster: there are some very big ideas - geo-engineering solutions to climate changes..." He lists them - giant umbrellas to shade from the sun, iron filings in the seabed to draw carbon out of the air - and admits to a Panglossian optimism about the potential of the world to avert environmental disaster.
We reach a cafe and settle ourselves at a table in the sun. Eno drinks a fruit smoothie and waves to friends at another table. He has a low boredom threshold: he's already said he's not interested in talking about the past, he jiggles his feet and keeps looking over my shoulder. "Look at that dreadful piece of parking," he says, pointing at a moped. I think it's Italian-style parking, I say, and ask him to tell me about the Sydney plans. He starts to list the musicians he's recruited - including the son of Nigerian legend Fela Kuti who, he says, was one of his biggest influences. "I told Talking Heads in 1977 that this was the future of music," he sighs. "It's only taken thirty years for people to realise." Eno: always waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.
His big finale for Sydney is called Pure Scenius: "I invented the word," he says. "When people say someone is a genius... they are usually surrounded by lots of talented people: the genius is the one who cherry-picks the best. It's about the intelligence of a whole scene, rarely just one person."
His mobile phone rings: "Got to go back," he says. "Karl's here to do some work." What happened to our promised ninety-minute interview? He shakes his head: "No one told me, sorry."
The next day my phone rings at home. It's Eno. "I don't think I gave you enough time," he says. "I can talk now." He's power walking across Hyde Park, breathing steadily. We talk about moving on from ambient music ("Anyone with a keyboard can do it; it's just a part of my palette now, not the whole colour"), returning to vocals in his music ("I'm using the spoken word a lot"), and a future project to install an electronically controlled carillon of church bells in Devon. There is a squeal of brakes in the background and a horn blares. "I nearly got run over by a motorbike," he says. I would have felt horribly responsible if he had. He chuckles, "Yes, I could have sued you."
Last question: what does he want to achieve in Sydney? "I like to think in terms of planting seeds," he says. "I want to leave a branch of Client Earth and to leave a different way of thinking about culture; there is no need to separate all this stuff - music, art, intellect - you can do all of it."
Some people may be more receptive than others to the Eno message. "He's mega," says my twenty-four-year-old music-nerd son, but then he reports hearing an exchange on Triple M radio in Sydney about the forthcoming visits by Tiger Woods and Brian Eno to Australia. Woods was a legend, they agreed. "But who's this guy Eno?" said one voice. "Dunno," said another. "Some musician."